Web general

Berkeley Talks transcript: Sociology Ph.D. graduates on the power of family and deep inquiry

black and white photo of two students wearing caps and gowns
Kristen Nelson and Mario Castillo delivered the spring 2023 graduate speech at the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology's commencement ceremony on May 19. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Nelson)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #169: Sociology Ph.D. graduates on the power of family and deep inquiry.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Speaker 1: And now our graduate student address will be shared by two of our Ph.D. graduates, Mario Castillo and Kristen Nelson.

Audience: Yay, Mario.

Kristen Nelson: Mario, did you invite any family and friends today?

Mario Castillo: Only the shy, quiet ones.

Kristen Nelson: Good morning. In second grade, I wrote a sentence where I forgot to capitalize the first letter of the first word, and my teacher said, “When you’re getting your Ph.D. and you’re writing a note to your adviser, then you can leave out the capital letters.” And I don’t know why, but I remember responding like this. “I can’t wait.”

I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was, but I was already troubled by questions that later led me to graduate school. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the most segregated metro area in the U.S. My private elementary school was in a crumbling Black neighborhood where buildings had windows filled in with bricks and signs for closed businesses still posted over locked grates. Every morning, my car ride to school was an unspoken lesson in the geography of inequality. From the green quiet streets of the suburb where I lived onto the highway and into a different world where people persevered through cycles of poverty.

Maybe no one sees the damage of inequality as clearly as a kid wondering, “Why is it like this?” That question hit especially close to home for me because my two beloved grandmothers also embodied the contrast that I saw on the streets of my hometown.

My nana, Ruth C. Tyler, was born 95 years ago tomorrow in rural Alabama. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, she cooked the best greens, beans, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, turkey and ham. She had a strong church community, but she was cautious in her neighborhood and did not trust her doctors.

My Oma, Siegrid Luna Nelson, was born just before my nana in part of what is now Russia. She valued education very highly, and when she came to visit me at Berkeley, we attended a SOC101 lecture together and she whispered her comments to me in the front row. She lived in safe communities and traveled to a state-of-the-art hospital for medical care.

I came to Berkeley to study the causes of inequality so we can fight it. But as a Black queer woman, starting graduate school felt like going into Dwinelle for the first time and trying to find a room. No matter how hard you study the map, you will get lost. I found my way in programs like Berkeley Connect, where I got to mentor sociology undergraduates. That program gave me a real sense of belonging and free dinner.

Berkeley Connect is one of many radical spaces of possibility at Cal, to use the words of Black feminist bell hooks, but we know that the university can also reinforce inequality. Too many disabled students have their needs questioned rather than met. And even with broad measures to address sexual harassment, people in positions of power still get away with it, knowing that survivors will be too scared to come forward.

When issues like this go unspoken, that is a politics of silence that perpetuates exclusion. This motivates me to practice a politics of articulation where we choose to say out loud what has been overlooked because we cannot change what we cover with silence.

So, fellow graduates, as we step into the next chapter, one way that we might apply our sociological training is to ask ourselves what needs to be spoken. Looking back, two people in particular helped me and Mario use our critical voices.

Mario Castillo: Dr. Sandra Susan Smith has been an inspirational trailblazer, a truth teller, and has inspired us on our journey every step of the way.

Kristen Nelson: Thank you, Sandra, for your investment in our excellence, your commitment, and your love. Dr. David Harding-

Audience: Woo.

Kristen Nelson: … is the steadiest boat on the choppiest waters.

Mario Castillo: As a mentor, he is motivating, reassuring, and inspiring. Thank you, Dave, for your sage-like patience, exceptional support and genuine kindness. Thank you. Thank you.

Like many of you, I was raised by a single mother. Her name is Mariana Leticia Castillo, and she was 17 when I was born. Now, I have tried to imagine what a 16-year-old mother to be must have felt as she prepared to bring a new life into this world, how she had hope for my wellness, happiness and success, coupled with an overwhelming sense of worry, anxiety and fear about the uncertain journey ahead.

Regrettably, my parents were unmarried and separated when I was a few months old. My father, Mario Martinez was 19 then, so I never really got to know who he was. But anyone who knew my mother could tell you that despite her difficult circumstances, she worked hard, loved deeply and never gave up on her family. She also pushed me to excel academically, though after graduating high school, I went to work as a cashier at a local hardware store, not for lack of wanting to go to college, but because the cost was prohibitive and significant challenges would soon take precedence.

Tragically, two months after my high school graduation, my mother died in a small plane crash. She was 36 years old. I was 18, and my sister, Monique, who’s in the audience today, was only 6. The news was utterly devastating and heartbreaking. After all, our mother was the person we could always count on to be there.

But everything changed overnight.

Even still, I was incredibly fortunate by the loving kindness of my dear Aunt Debbie, who’s also in the audience today, and my dear Uncle Danny, who I feel is present in spirit. They and their three sons took me in and gave me a stable, supportive home to begin the healing process.

Now, my mother’s story, as a young working-class woman of color, finding her way as a single parent, combined with my own unique experiences as a queer person of color, propelled me towards deeper inquiry, self-discovery, and ultimately, the fascinating field of sociology.

While at this world-class department, I have had the extraordinary privilege of grappling with some of the toughest questions about race, class, gender, sexuality, inequality and more. Indeed, the critical study of society and human relationships has helped me better understand my family’s story and this beautiful, complex, often messy world we all share.

So, on this celebratory morning, I leave you, the graduates, a heartfelt message from my mother written 17 days before her passing. At the time, I was preparing for a lengthy trip to New Mexico, wide-eyed and eager to embrace new adventures ahead. After acknowledging her excitement and anxiousness, she reminded me to believe in myself. “If you take this journey alone,” she wrote, “take time and find yourself. I will be next to you holding your hand, along with Monique. We will miss you very much. I’m so very proud of you, no matter what.” And then with the clever tweak to the song, “Que Sera, Sera,” she wrote, “Whatever you’ll be, you’ll be. Your future’s not mine, you see.”

To my shy, quiet family, thank you. I love you so much, and I’m so happy you’re here. I’m here because of you, and I’m here for you. And to the outstanding graduating Class of 2023, congratulations on your remarkable achievement. You did it. You’re on your way. Keep on keeping on. Thank you so much.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.